By Bill Shaner
You’ve heard of coyotes in Worcester. Likely, you’ve seen cellphone pictures and videos posted to social media, or else you’ve posted them yourself, with your own story or advisory for pet owners in the neighborhood. Coyotes have been the talk of the town lately, and we’re starting to accept that they live among us.
But what about coywolves? Equal parts coyote, wolf and domesticated dog, they’re bigger, smarter, more likely to hunt than your average coyote. They move in packs. And they, too, live among us, or so says Colin Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust. He’s seen them, he told me, and he says others have seen them as well in the more wild parts of Worcester.
“Well, we got a problem,” he tells me, sitting in a green GWLT pullover at a large table in the middle of his office, in a tone suggesting there’s no problem at all. A wall plastered with wildlife posters and infographics separates him from the constant hum of Polar Park construction across the street as he brims with excitement about the subject.
“No apex predators requires us to be hunters. Then we got fat and lazy and sat on our couches. Now we’re not hunting. But nature, because she is wild, abhors a vacuum. So she cooks up a brand new species. Shazam!”
And thus the coywolf was born. It’s a coyote, Novick said, but “it’s like going to McDonalds and asking to super-size it.”
Now, it should be said, not everyone agrees that coywolves exist. Some, including MassWildlife, prefer the term “eastern coyote.” In an official MassWildlife powerpoint presentation on the animals, Mass Wildlife downplays the wolf angle. While eastern coyotes are the result of “western coyotes interbreeding with gray wolves and domestic dogs,” they contain “very little wolf DNA” and are “60-84 percent coyote.” They are about the size of a medium dog, says MassWildlife. An exceptionally large coywolf — sorry, eastern coyote — is about 60 pounds, but they often look larger because of thick fur. They are transient by nature, traveling 7 to 16 miles a day.
Recently, Novick went out to Donker Farm — the last working farm in Worcester, which GWLT manages — to investigate a recent coywolf sighting. What he found there were two coywolves, each larger than a standard poodle. He’s seen coyotes and coywolves in Worcester going back at least seven years. Around that time, Novick said, he saw a coywolf early in the morning, after a fresh snow. He followed the tracks for the better part of a day, and found that the animal was weaving in and out of people’s yards through thick brush around property edges. They don’t want to be seen and they don’t want to engage with humans, so they don’t.
“They have been there for years and years and years but they are so good at their job that they’re only getting recognized now,” said Novick.
While it might seems like a new phenomenon, or one that has recently gotten more severe, it’s more likely that it’s a phenomenon we humans are creating. Pictures posted to social media, especially to popular Worcester pages and groups, create an artificial sense of a growing problem, Novick said. In reality, the coywolves have been here for at least a decade, but never before has it been so easy to capture and share a sighting.
While development has pushed other forms of wildlife closer to Worcester — bears and moose especially — coyotes and coywolves have been a natural part of the ecosystem here for years, Novick said.
“Like it or not, this is part of a healthy, functioning Worcester. It’s part of the mix that makes Worcester work,” he said.
Novick cautioned against panic. The animals want nothing to do with humans, and while they do pose a risk to cats and smaller dogs, pet owners should just keep their animals on leash and they will be fine, he said.
Around here, the coywolves mostly hunt deer. And, from Novick’s perspective, that’s a good thing. When deer population runs unchecked, it throws off the natural balance of woodlands. Deer clear too much of the forest floor — like lawnmowers, he said — which leads to an increase in ticks and destabilizes the ecosystem created by trees. According to MassWildlife, the state saw its second largest harvest of deer ever in the 2019 hunting season, although, according to Novick, the number of hunters overall has been static over the past few years.
“We should be excited about this,” he said. “We have an imbalanced system that is out of whack. There has to be an apex predator, and if we’re not the ones who do it, something else has to.”